The story of my Great-grandmother, Ettie Blueskin, is at the heart of my sharing - it’s where my family’s ancestral lines were broken and where three generations of my family’s journey through many institutions and foster care all began.
The story of my Great-grandmother, Ettie Blueskin, is at the heart of my sharing - it’s where my family’s ancestral lines were broken and where three generations of my family’s journey through many institutions and foster care all began. Sadly, Ettie’s life of injustice, unfairness, compounded trauma and life-long pain ended at the derelict/unemployment camp at Port Adelaide, near the Cement Works.
I am a child of the Stolen Generations. My ancestral lines were broken by policies that permitted the forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their families on 28th of May 1913 – exactly 101 years ago. These policies underpinned the practice of assimilation of Aboriginal people into white society – the promise of a better life.
It took two decades and countless Freedom of Information requests before I finally obtained Ettie’s, my Nana’s (Geraldine Mason) and my Mum’s (Sandy Mason) welfare records – the records that held the truth that my family yearned for, especially my Mum, my Auntie, and of course me. These records stirred up so much emotion and heartache in our family, but they also held the critical links that would reconnect us to our ancestral lines.
My Great-grandmother, Ettie Blueskin was born on the Far West Coast of South Australia. She was labelled a *half-caste child, and as such was forcibly removed from her mother Lucy Blueskin on 28th May 1913 with the intent of assimilating her into white society.
Her records show that she was about 5-years of age at the time of her removal, and her Date of Birth was recorded as 28th May 1908. Yes, the date that she was forcibly removed, less her estimated age (5-years) became her Date of Birth. This practice was common. Ettie’s loss of identity began there.
This legal document is a copy of Ettie’s committal, which took place at Penong. It’s important to remember that she was only a child, just 5-years of age. It says:
Whereas Ettie, a girl, has been brought before the undersigned, in and for the State of South Australia and charged with being a neglected child, within the meaning of ‘The State Children Act, 1895,’ in that she is under the Guardianship of a person, ‘to wit’ an Aborigine woman named Lucy who is unfit to have such Guardianship’.
Ettie was charged, convicted, and sentenced with her own neglect! There was no evidence of such neglect recorded from the committal hearing, the only reason presented was her mother was an Aboriginal woman, who was unfit to have such Guardianship. The assimilation begins.
Ettie was ordered to The Industrial School at Edwardstown to be there detained or otherwise dealt with under the said Act until she attained age of 18-years which equated to a 13-year sentence for her own neglect.
And written down the left-hand side of this piece of paper, it says:
Decided by the State Children’s Council on the 14th July 1913:
1st This child’s name to be Ettie WHITE; and
2nd This child’s religion to be Protestant.
Her identity was stripped further away and a new personal identity and religion enforced upon her.
A Genealogist for the Far West Coast told me that they probably gave Ettie the surname WHITE to recognise that she’s first generation half-caste.
Apparently, they also applied a very scientific process to decide the religion of the children – that is - every 7th child brought into State Care was Catholic, the rest – Protestant.
But the loss of identity didn’t stop there.
I’d refer to this as the equivalent of a post-it note in today’s terms. It reads:
The Council resolved that the name of a coloured girl, a State Ward, be changed from Ettie WHITE to Ettie MASON.
This was dated 7th January, 1918. So five years after being taken into care, Ettie was re-named again. Further removing her from her birth identity.
So she was renamed from Blueskin, to White, to Mason – in 5 years. There was a Protector of Aborigines in those days by the name of Mason – so go figure? MASON became our family name – a welfare issued name; a name that would constantly remind my Mum of her family’s journey through the welfare system.
In 1928 (15-years after Ettie was taken into care) the Secretary of the Children’s Welfare and Public Relief Board wrote to The Protector of Aborigines. He was seeking to make contact with Lucy – Ettie’s Mum.
The Superintendent of Koonibba Mission sent a telegram back advising that Lucy was at Penong – he stated that she often frequents the Mission to visit her children. Five of Lucy’s other children were removed from her and committed to the Children’s Home at Koonibba.
Once they’d determined Lucy’s location, in February 1928 the Chairperson of the Children’s Welfare and Public Relief Board put forward a recommendation to the Honorable Chief Secretary that Ettie be detained for a further 12-months. At the time of making the recommendation, they included the following statement:
Ettie Mason, 20-years of age on the 28th May 1928; mother an unfit guardian; at present an inmate of the McBride’s Hospital.
A mother? An unfit guardian? An inmate? At a Hospital? And, who did she get pregnant to while an inmate, at a Hospital?
My Nana was born to Ettie on 20th December 1927. So Nana was about 2-months of age when this recommendation was drafted.
In this recommendation, it went on to say:
The mother of this girl is a full-blooded Aboriginal, living at present at Penong. She goes by the name of Lucy Blueskin, and frequently attends the Mission. She has never enquired about her daughter Ettie.
How could she enquire about her daughter? She went into Welfare, I’m sure they wouldn’t have left a contact number.
So the Protector writes back to the Superintendent at Koonibba asking him to show Lucy a letter. The letter was advising Lucy that the Board had decided to keep her daughter in care pursuant to the Maintenance Act 1926 until she attains the age of 21. They informed Lucy in the letter that she had the right to appeal this decision.
What they failed to tell Lucy in this letter though, was she was now a Grandmother – Ettie had a two month old daughter.
On reading the letter to Lucy, as a Mother myself, I could only imagine how she must have felt. No contact with her daughter for 15 years. Not knowing if she was alive, or where she was in the world. Now to discover she’s still held by Welfare, and they’re writing to let her know, they’re keeping her for another year.
The Superintendent wrote back:
Lucy Blueksin, a native woman, received notice that the Children’s Welfare and Public Relief Board recommends that the period of detention of her daughter Ettie Mason, a half-caste, be extended for one year. As Lucy is unable to write, she asked me to do so for her. She would like her daughter to come back now, as she has not seen her since 1913. Will you kindly get in touch with the Chairman of the Board and do what you can for her welfare.
I read this as an appeal from Lucy against the Board's decision.
Lucy’s anxiety and emotional state must have been so great because another letter pleading to the Board was sent on the same day. The letter read:
As Lucy Blueskin, being a camp native, is unable to read or write, she wants me to reply to your letter. She says that she naturally would prefer to have her daughter now. At any note, she would be pleased to hear from her. Would you kindly inform me personally what happens when such a child or young person as Ettie Mason is no longer detained. I am not conversant with the procedure of your Board. It does seem a pity, that a girl who has been brought up in such favourable conditions, should be transplanted back into a Lubra’s camp. Of what character is this girl? Perhaps when the time for her release comes, I could find a suitable place for her with respectable people here on the West Coast. This would satisfy her Mother and at the same time help the girl. I would be grateful to you to receive some information.
Transplanted back into a Lubra’s Camp! They were women’s camps – they were family, community, culture!
The response to this letter from the Board:
In this case the Board has recommended that Ettie’s term be extended until she attains the age of 21-years, on that day the girl will be free from the care of this Department, and at liberty to please herself where she goes. It is usual to place girls in a good situation prior to their term expiring, but of course, they may please themselves whether they stay in such a home or not. In fact, every endeavor is made to place these girls in suitable situations in preference to detaining them in an Institution. You may inform Lucy Blueskin that the Board has recommended that Ettie be kept under control for another year, therefore, she need not worry about her being well cared for.
As a mother, my heart is heavy when I think of Lucy and the pain she had to bear.
That letter was the last correspondence ... the last that Lucy ever heard about her daughter. They never reconnected in this life.
Lucy outlived Ettie and I often wonder if anyone formally advised her of her daughter's passing, or if Lucy may have kept searching for her? I also wonder if they ever told Lucy about my Nana (her own grandchild).
A letter was also sent to Ettie to let her know that she would be detained until she reaches 21 years of age. It starts:
My Dear Girl,
At a recent meeting of the Children’s Welfare and Public Relief Board, it was decided to extend your period of supervision until you are 21. This has been done with the idea of helping you as much as possible. If the Board had decided to release you when you were 20 years of age, you would have no one to turn to when you left McBride Hospital, and you would have a very hard struggle with your baby girl. And finishes … Your sincere friend …
They failed to let Ettie know that they contacted her Mother who appealed this recommendation.
A file note dated 28th March 1929 says:
Whilst at McBrides Home the girl went to see her baby and found it so ill, she took it to see a Doctor who said it was fretting and said the girl must keep it with her. Doctor diagnosed the case as ‘Broken Heart’.
My Nana, at 1½ years of age, was diagnosed with a Broken Heart.
If the Doctor diagnosed my Nana, a baby, with a Broken Heart and fretting, why on earth did they tear a Mother and child’s love apart? If Ettie was still an inmate, in care, due for release in 12-months, why didn’t they let her keep her baby? Provide her with the right supports? Isn’t that what they promised in their letter to her?
Ettie was finally released from care, with empty arms, in 1930, (at the age of 23, so, she actually served an 18 year sentence). Her daughter, my Nana, was placed into care – the cycle continued.
Most of our women left these institutions with a suitcase of clothing in one hand, and an invisible suitcase of hopes and dreams in the other; hopes of a better life, hopes of finding their Mothers, their families and reconnecting to their culture and their communities. But those dreams were fast shattered. In this case, Ettie was sent to a property to work as a servant in Mount Gambier – it doesn’t get much further from the Far West Coast of SA than that, does it?
She fled that situation, and made her way through Raukkan, and down to Goolwa where she fell pregnant to a man by the name of Henry Bryant. They married, but it was short lived.
Like many of our people, Ettie’s life circumstances led her to homelessness. Police and Court reports described her as a public nuisance. I trawled through the online pages of her criminal history (on Trove) … On one occasion there was a big write-up in the paper about her titled, Woman Presents Problem! Everything they charged and convicted her for were all symptoms of deep, entrenched, persistent, compounded grief, loss and trauma. These symptoms were demonised and criminalised.
At 39-years of age, Ettie was found deceased at the Unemployment Camp, or Derelict Camp as it was more commonly known as, down at Port Adelaide near the Cement Works. She died in the most repulsive, inhumane circumstances. She died in a tin shanty, on an old iron mattress, in the middle of winter, with a thin short-sleeved dress on, and an overcoat thrown over her legs.
I’m reminded of the quote from the Superintendent’s letter
'it does seem a pity, that a girl who has been brought up in such favorable conditions should be transplanted back into a Lubra’s Camp'.
Well, if only she had.
The promise of a better life – right?
Ettie is buried in an unmarked, pauper's grave at West Terrace Cemetery. We found her on the 100th Anniversary of the day she was forcibly removed.
Council was instructed to burn the tin shanties to the ground in July/August 1947, on the back of Ettie's death at the Derelict Camp.